07 Jun

My 18 days in Singapore

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Until the very end of April, I’d never been outside North America, but I corrected that in a big way when I took a 14-hour flight from Dallas to Doha and then another flight — this one a mere seven hours — to Singapore.

The occasion was my 12-day stint as author-in-residence at the Singapore American School. I conducted two-day writing workshops for the second- through fifth-graders and got to read a book or two to the schools first-graders, kindergartners, and pre-K students.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

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Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home -- a copy of Sarah Bird's A Love Letter to Texas Women -- without having any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home — a copy of Sarah Bird’s A Love Letter to Texas Women — without have any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

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One of the students laminated my autograph!

One of the students laminated my autograph!

The school days were full, but there was much I wanted to see in my downtime, so I got out and about a lot. Besides, I figured I could sleep on my long flight home. (This turned out not to be true.)

On my first Saturday there, I had lunch in Little India, visited the Sultan Mosque —

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— took a break for Japanese ice cream and coffee, went to a festival at the Thai embassy, and ended the day with an IMAX screening of Captain America: Civil War with Chinese subtitles.

Singapore offers a marvelous mix of cultures, history, natural beauty, and adventurous architecture. Here are a few of my favorite sights:

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

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(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

I picked the right day to follow my mom's suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

I picked the right day to follow my mom’s suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

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What else? Let’s see — there was a wet market:

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The MacRitchie Reservoir Park, with Kate Brundage…

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…and monkeys:

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The Singapore Botanic Garden, with an Evolution Garden that I especially liked:

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Though this guy was also a highlight:

But my favorite place to photograph was, without a doubt, Haw Par Villa:

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The centerpiece of Haw Par Villa is the Ten Courts of Hell, the representations of which are a bit extreme. There are serious punishments for more infractions than I knew existed. Trust me, you don’t want to suffer the consequences of misusing books.

But I can’t end there. I’ve got to go back to SAS and one of the campus cats. Because campus cats.

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07 Nov

Hear me on the Picturebooking podcast

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Nick Patton hosted me this week for an interview on the newest edition of his Picturebooking podcast.

I loved talking with Nick about ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America and The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and about being married to my favorite author in the whole world, as well as answering his curveballier questions. Such as:

What was my life like right before the moment I got inspired to write children’s books?

And if neither time nor money was a limitation, what would my ultimate project be?

I had to really think about those, and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity. Thank you, Nick!

28 Apr

Revision, and revision, and more revision

The first slide in my presentation to school audiences lists various things that I am (author, Texan, dad, cook, dog-lover, etc.), culminating in “Rewriter” listed four times. It’s not that I ran out of things to say — when I visit schools, I talk a lot about revising, so that repetition makes a point.

I want students to know that books, even 32-page picture books, don’t spring fully formed from the minds of authors and illustrators, that there’s always room for improvement. And as exhibits A-D, I would point to four projects I worked on revising earlier this month — one chapter book and three picture books that have been rattling around in my head for an average of something like five years each.

One of them in particular I can remember reading to my now-15-year-old-son when he was maybe four years old. I’ve sworn many times over the years that I’ve gotten that manuscript as good as I can possibly get it, only to be pushed a little farther (sometimes by myself, but generally by someone else) and find that there was still room to make it better, or take a fresh approach to it. That additional effort has paid off for that manuscript once again, and for the three others as well.

I tell students that I am all those things I list on the presentation slide because I love doing all those things. Having months like this one, where I can see my efforts resulting in old projects taking on new life, will ensure that I keep on loving rewriting for a long while to come.

06 Apr

Highlights of a week that’s a highlight of my year

The latest issue of my Bartography Express newsletter — focusing on the Texas Library Association conference, recent discussions of diversity in children’s literature, and Elizabeth Bluemle and G. Brian Karas’ new picture book, Tap Tap Boom Boom — went out to subscribers a few days ago.

Here’s an image of the entire newsletter. For the next few weeks, you can click the image to get a fully linked version.

And if you’ll give me a shout in the comments section of this post, you can still get in the running for the giveaway of Elizabeth’s lively, rhyming urban thunderstorm story, of which The Horn Book says, “The emphasis here is not on a child’s fear of storms but on the excitement of the experience.”

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16 Feb

“Do you get to pick your illustrators? Do you ever meet them in person?”

On Facebook recently, a high school friend now teaching school in Japan passed along some questions from his second-graders:

  • Do you get to pick your illustrators?
  • Do you ever meet them in person?
  • Is a book written before the illustrator ever gets picked?
  • Here’s how I answered:

    My experiences have differed from book to book. Sometimes, I’m just flat-out told who the illustrator will be, sometimes I’m asked what I think of a candidate (or two) that the publisher has in mind, and sometimes I’m asked for suggestions. Generally, the text is “finished” before the illustrator gets to work, though there’s always room for adjusting the text if that will make for a better marriage with the art. Shark Vs. Train, though, involved LOTS of collaboration between illustrator Tom Lichtenheld and me. Some illustrators, I’ve known for years before they start working on my books, and some I still haven’t met in person even years after the book is published. Tell your second graders that they’re asking great questions!

    Their questions are also timely ones, as each of the illustrators that I’m currently — or about to be — working with has arrived at our collaboration by way of a unique path. Some were suggested by the publisher, some were suggested to the publisher by me, some were settled on by the publisher before I ever knew who they were considering, and one I passed my manuscript along to before any editors or even agents knew we were up to anything.

    A couple of them had sat my kitchen table before the topic of pairing up ever arose. A couple are brand-new to illustrating picture books. A couple are experienced picture book illustrators who so far are strangers to me.

    In each case, I try to strike a balance between a) making myself as available to them as they want me to be, and b) staying the heck out of their way. Making oneself available may come a lot more easily than lying low, but I believe both are important for authors of picture books who want illustrators to happily do great work that puts their own stamp on a project and makes a book into something more than the author alone ever could have envisioned. We have to trust them.

    I wish I could share with you the latest happymaking visual evidence suggesting that my approach seems to be working. You’ll have to trust me.

    15 Jan

    This month’s Bartography Express giveaway: The Rockabilly Goats Gruff

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    The January issue of my Bartography Express newsletter went out a couple of days ago, and as usual, one subscriber will win a copy of the featured book. This month, the giveaway is for author/illustrator Jeff Crosby‘s new picture book, The Rockabilly Goats Gruff (Holiday House).

    If you’d like to be in the running for next month’s giveaway of Nikki Loftin‘s upcoming novel Nightingale’s Nest (which received a starred review from Kirkus), you can sign up here in the big yellow box.

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    But in the meantime, here’s my chat with Jeff about his book from this month’s newsletter:

    CB: What drew you toward the story you tell in The Rockabilly Goats Gruff?

    JC: The Billy Goats Gruff was a favorite story of mine when I was a kid. I think it was the repetition of the three encounters with the troll building up to the climactic battle that appealed to me. That repetition appealed to me as a writer, too. Plus, also being the illustrator of the book, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to paint hot rods, goats in pompadours, and a troll!

    CB: Tell me about the kind of kid you think The Rockabilly Goats Gruff will appeal to the most.

    JC: The troll, hot rods, and rock ‘n’ roll swagger of the goats will definitely appeal to boys. As a Looney Tunes-watching, Tonka Truck-playing kid, I would have loved this book when I was boy. But the rockabilly lingo and music will make it a fun read-aloud for any kid.

    05 Jan

    Now tweeting more regularly @Bartography

    This is just a quick note to say that my Twitter account, @Bartography, has become a lot more active lately.

    Maybe I’ll go into my reasons via tweets, in addition to the other observations and conversations and curiosities that I’m sharing there. For a sampling, check out the blue sidebar on my blog.

    If you like what you see, why don’t you stop by — even if only to enjoy a larger version of the Shark Vs. Train dust jacket photo depicting me playing with my Big Jims in Lubbock, Texas, circa 1980.

    25 Oct

    This month’s Bartography Express giveaway: LOCOMOTIVE, the big-in-every-sense new book from Brian Floca

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    You won’t see many bigger books this year than my friend Brian Floca’s Locomotive — and I mean that literally. It’s quite a bit taller and wider and thicker than most picture books, but then, it’s got a gigantic story to tell.

    In the latest, hot-off-the-server edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, you can read more about it and get in the running for my monthly giveaway!

    12 Aug

    A “True Blue” interview with Newbery honoree Kathi Appelt

    (Note: The following is from the most recent edition of my monthly email newsletter, Bartography Express, which you can sign up for from the big yellow box on my home page.)

    Kathi AppeltKathi Appelt has been teaching and inspiring me since before she ever knew my name — and well before either of us knew that we shared a birthday or mutual friends outside the world of children’s books. Her warmth and generosity of spirit mean that any day that you find yourself in conversation with her is a good day — and that especially includes days spent drawn into one of Kathi’s books, which include both picture books (Bubba and Beau, Best Friends; Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America) and novels (Newbery Honor book and National Book Award finalist The Underneath; Keeper).

    Today, then, is a good day. Because not only will one Bartography Express reader win a copy of her rapturously received brand-new novel, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), but we also get to have a quick conversation with Kathi about her latest book came to be.

    The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man SwampCB: What made you want to write The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp?

    KA: One morning, Cynthia Leitich Smith sent me an email with one sentence:  “Write something funny.”  At first, I was confused.  What did I have to say that was funny? Could I even write a funny story? I think funny is hard. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I needed to lighten up. Most of the work I had been doing was serious, and in some instances, it was downright dark. So, it was time for me to add some laughter to my work, and Cynthia somehow knew that. Besides, it’s the smart person who pays attention to what Cynthia says. [Bartography’s Note: This is true.] 

    Also, I had always wanted to write a story featuring raccoons, so this was my chance. When I decided to make their home an old DeSoto, the pieces began to fall into place. From there, the whole experience of writing it was just a kick. It’s going to be hard to go back to writing something serious. Hmmm….maybe I won’t.

    CB: Tell me about the kind of child you think The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp will appeal to the most.

    KA: I hope it’ll appeal to any reader, young or old. However, despite the light-hearted humor of the story, there are some important environmental and family themes, so I think that any kids who are interested in the environment and in endangered animals will take to this tale. I hope so anyways. And of course, those readers who are into alligator wrestling should also find their places here. Actually, there’s something here for pie eaters, pirate lovers, appreciators of Big Foot and rattlesnakes, old car enthusiasts. You know, everyone!